Day 6

How dyslexia is helping designers make better objects

Dyslexia is widely understood as a learning disability that makes it hard for people to read or understand words. But industrial designer Jim Rokos says when it comes to designing objects, it's a huge asset. Launching this week in London, he's curating an exhibit called Dyslexic Design that features the work of his fellow industrial designers who also have dyslexia. He tells Brent about the objects he'll be featuring in his new exhibit—everything from a parka that collapses into the shape of a gorilla head to a lopsided wine decanter.
(Hunting jacket design by Rohan Chhabra)

In a room, you'll find a parka that takes on the three-dimensional shape of a gorilla, a mouth-blown vase that gradually leans to the side as the flower wilts and a lampshade made entirely of individually cut pieces of wood.

At first glance, these items don't seem to have much in common, but they're all examples of innovative industrial design and all were created by designers who happen to have dyslexia, a condition that makes it difficult for people to read or understand words.

These works are being featured in an exhibition called "Dyslexic Design," which opened this week in London, England. The show's aim is to highlight the value of dyslexic thinking.

It is organized by Jim Rokos, an industrial designer who has dyslexia.

It features a variety of creations from designers across several industries, whose dyslexia has helped their work. One of the pieces on display is a hunting jacket designed by Rohan Chhabra. The jacket folds up into the form of a gorilla.

The exhibit also features one of Rokos own creations: a flower vase that gradually leans to the side. "It's an unusual vase in that it takes on the behaviour of the flower. So as the flower wilts, the vase leans over too—it's a little poetic. The weight of the water holds the vase upright, so as the flower drinks the water it leans over more," Rokos says.

(Jim Rokos)

The idea for the exhibit came to Rokos while he was driving from London to Yorkshire. He was listening to a call-in radio show that focused on the negative sides of dyslexia. 

"The final straw was [when] somebody phoned in and spoke of this sperm bank that was refusing donations from dyslexics. I found it really insulting and I wasn't in the right frame of mind to phone in myself and say how good it is actually to be dyslexic. So I started working on this exhibition of designers who are dyslexic, to show the gifts that [the condition] comes with."

But that wasn't the first time Rokos felt stigmatized. "At school, we'd be doing a test—maybe it'd be out of 20—and all the other kids would be getting 16, 17, 18 and I'd be getting two or three and the teacher would read out all our grades to us and everyone would laugh that my grade was super low."

Rokos says that dyslexia is not a disability. The reason people with the condition have difficulty is because schooling isn't designed for different types of minds.

He says stigma exists because people with dyslexia are a minority. "If it was 50/50—half dyslexics, half people without—half the people would be bad at reading and writing and half the people would be bad at 3D thinking and interior design and drawing. It's just the same thing. People are good at different [things]."

Rokos says people with dyslexia are naturally visual and think three-dimensionally. He sees his dyslexia as an asset in the design world. "This is where it becomes useful for an industrial designer or a product designer. It's just very easy to manage these shapes and play with them in our minds."

He says there are characteristics that make designs by people with dyslexia standout. "If it shows incredible three-dimensional thinking, then i'll have my suspicions. If it's got very strong lateral thinking—so, unexpected solutions to problems—I'll think that there's a strong possibility that they're dyslexic as well." 

"They come out with the unexpected things, they're sort of looking sideways, rather than vertically," he says of designers with dyslexia.

While curating for the show, Rokos approached designers that exhibited these traits and whose work showed signs of lateral thinking.

The "Dyslexic Design" exhibit is open until Sept. 25.